Director Andrew Rossi takes on the rising debt crisis in his documentary film Ivory Tower, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and opens in the US on June 13 through Samuel Goldwyn. Elbert Wyche reports.

Rossi interviewed faculty and staff from a diverse range of colleges and universities seeking answers to what has caused the monumental crisis of debilitating student loan debt. 

Rossi talks about the effects of the pursuit of prestige among universities in the US, the burden of student loan debt and what parents and students can do to challenge the higher education system. 

When did you decide you wanted to do this film?
I had just finished Page One, a movie about The New York Times, and I was looking for another story about disruption and change in an important cultural institution. This was right around the time that student loan debt was exceeding a trillion dollars and people were asking some very searing questions about what students are learning on campus and how we can sustain a business model that has seen tuition rise by 1,120% since 1978. Creatively, my goal was to be able to show the stories of certain characters, who are students and faculty and a range of colleges and universities, to see what is really going on. And to ask questions: is it true that the state of affairs on campus are so much in peril, and if so how much can be done about it?

How did you choose your interview subjects and the schools you wanted to cover?
We knew we wanted to represent the public school experience – the state university. So we chose Arizona State University, which has the largest undergraduate enrollment in the country. ASU was an important part of the portrait. We also knew we wanted to represent non-traditional programmes like Deep Springs in the desert of Death Valley. We also covered Spelman, which is a place where education can transcend job readiness and actually be a vehicle for people to get to know themselves better; an experience where their character is being transformed. Then we really wanted to show the small liberal arts college, so we filmed at Weslyan, where the president of the college actually teaches a class. In the corporatised university you don’t have the president of the university being able to teach while they’re administrating their school. Then we also see Bunker Hill Community College. Community colleges are seen as the hero of the higher education sector because they have limited resources and are experimenting with technology and alternative ways to increase access and decrease costs. There’s also Harvard, which is the first university founded in 1636 and was inspired by a mission to fill students with a sense that they can lead lives of meaning and purpose. We thought it was important to film at Harvard and see that kind of legacy at work. You can also see how the DNA of higher education has been spawned in a way that constantly drives toward getting bigger and better.

What were some of the reactions that you got from the audiences?
I’ve had students or recent grads come up to me after the screenings on the verge of tears telling me that the movie really captured their plight. Particularly, they were hoping that their parents and other family members would understand how difficult it is for them. We’ve also had parents, and in some cases trustees from other colleges, really start a conversation on how they can make change happen on their campuses or in their families.

What’s the meaning behind the title?
Ivory Tower refers to this structure that you find on so many campuses that has come to be thought of in the culture as the place where professors and thinkers live, sort of far apart from the common person. It also refers to the Tower of Babel, which is a biblical story in which people kept building higher and higher up to reach God and then finally this tower that they were building collapsed. For us it represents this programme or campaign that you find on many campuses to grow bigger and get better. Often, they do so at the expense of the welfare of students. The best example of that is the new engineering building that Cooper Union has built. They took out a $175m loan to build this spectacular building but they’re a school of only 1,000 students and they have been free since 1859. Paying off the mortgage for this building has contributed to an unbearable deficit. As a result, students are now forced to start paying tuition. This ‘ivory tower’ getting larger and larger on campuses is really the root of the problem.

Can you expand on the pursuit of prestige, a concept brought up by one of your interviewees?
Anthony Carnevale says in the film that colleges and universities are obsessed with prestige and accruing more of it for their institutions. It’s in the DNA of higher education to want to become bigger and better and to compete with peer institutions on that basis. That is reflected in these rankings that can be found in the US News & World Report or The Princeton Review and in other online entities. In some cases they are measuring things such as research facilities and in other cases it’s measuring who has the best food on campus. There’s a whole range of metrics that have really lost sight of the academic experience for students. This is also really important in terms of what president Obama has proposed, which is to look at metrics that include student loan debt averages for students in a particular institution, completion rates – how many students are graduating in four or six years, employment rates and a host of metrics that are not about intangible prestige but rather nuts and bolts things that parents and students should be thinking of when they apply to a school. I think using these metrics would be a good first step.

What can students and parents do to challenge the status quo?
The schools have a lot of power. But we see in the film that student activism is very powerful. Students are not only victims; they have a voice and can fight back. In the case of Cooper Union the students occupied the president’s office. Now they have decided to sue the school. There are many organisations like Higher Ed, Not Debt that are trying to change the laws as they apply to student loan holders and to advocate on a state level to increase funding for public universities. Even on a federal level we see legislators like senator Elizabeth Warren trying to urge congress to allow students to refinance their debt, which would be a great step.